Healthcare workers who volunteer for American Red Cross disaster-relief assignments say they're motivated by a desire to help people put their lives back together after a catastrophe.
These 8,000 volunteers -- typically nurses, social workers, emergency medical technicians, counselors, physician assistants and therapists -- often leave home on short notice to aid victims of hurricanes, fires, floods and other disasters, wherever they occur.
Volunteers have been called on to serve for a host of disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast when it struck in August 2005, and the tsunami that hit South Asia in December 2004. Among the Red Cross volunteers who responded to the South Asia tsunami were five specially trained American mental-health specialists who trained local volunteers in the Maldive Islands, says Dee Yeater, senior associate for disaster health services for the American Red Cross. Overall, 22,000 volunteers participated in Red Cross relief efforts in the tsunami-affected area; those efforts continued following the March 2005 earthquake that struck near Indonesia.
In addition, following the January 2005 mudslide in Ventura County, California, all local Red Cross healthcare volunteers were called on to provide aid, including 22 nurses immediately deployed to shelters to offer comfort and care, Yeater says.
"I think health workers know what a trauma can do to people, and when there is a trauma, they know the skills they have could be of help," says Rose Brooks, a retired Connecticut social worker.
Training for Disaster Relief
To become an American Red Cross disaster-relief volunteer, licensed healthcare professionals should contact their local Red Cross chapter. An introductory training course can be completed in about an hour at home or three hours in a group setting.
Further training prepares volunteers for a variety of assignments, such as managing shelters or interviewing disaster victims. Some volunteers, such as Pennsylvania RN Barbara Schupeltz go on to serve in management roles or teach disaster-relief training classes.
"It's satisfying work for me," says Schupeltz, who is retired from a 27-year career in the US Navy. She started volunteering in 1996. "Maybe because I don't work, to keep my hand in nursing even as a quasi-case manager is good for me," she explains. "It keeps me in touch with my career."
"Volunteers are the core of our being," says Jane Morgan, manager of individual assistance within the American Red Cross's response division. "You can take care of somebody's house and their beds, but the individual himself needs to be OK. Health professionals tend to look at the whole individual and the whole family to make sure they're OK."
No minimum time commitment is required to be a disaster-relief volunteer. Volunteers can give a weekend a month or several weeks a year, depending on their level of interest and availability. Brooks, for instance, volunteers while at her Massachusetts vacation home in the summer.
Volunteers may be called upon to respond to local disasters or sent out for major events such as the series of hurricanes that struck Florida in August and September 2004. Those assigned to a major disaster work six 12-hour days for two weeks. During this time, volunteers may search for disaster victims, hand out donated supplies, offer crisis counseling and first aid and guide victims to local organizations for further assistance.
Red Cross volunteers may be stationed in a shelter or at a disaster-relief hub, where they greet disaster victims and offer services. They can also work in areas without electricity or water and may contend with weather conditions that can make caregiving a challenge.
Despite such adversities, volunteers find the work rewarding. "I believe in the organization, and I see the good that it does," Brooks says. "There's really an opportunity to have a big impact in a direct way."
Aid for the Volunteers
Recognizing that volunteers can also feel a disaster's effects, the Red Cross is careful to see that their needs are met as well. Assistance is available for volunteers who are disaster victims themselves, and counseling is offered for volunteers on whom the relief work is taking an emotional toll.
"There's always somebody who can help volunteers within the organization," says RN Becky Alden of Massachusetts, who responded to a plane crash in that state in which two people died. "You're never alone out there."